He is Hollywood's richest man, a music impresario, a movie producer and a global art collector. Could the billionaire David Geffen, once renowned for signing acts including Joni Mitchell and the Eagles, become a press baron by buying into the United States' pre-eminent newspaper, the New York Times?

Encumbered by a slipping circulation and plunging advertising revenue, the Times' publisher lost US$74 million ($127 million) in the first three months of the year - a deficit running at more than US$800,000 a day.

Its controlling family, the Ochs-Sulzbergers, have kept a firm grip on the paper since 1896 but with dividends drying up, rumours abound that certain relatives have itchy feet.

The paper is part of the fabric of New York City. It gave its name to Times Square and has reported on events from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to the terrorist attacks of September 11.

But with debts of more than US$1 billion, sinking morale in its newsroom and pessimism about the possible death of newsprint, the paper's future is under unprecedented scrutiny.

Among the biggest backers of the New York Times Company (NYTC) is Harbinger Capital, a hedge fund that accumulated 19 per cent of the publishing firm for US$500 million in 2007 and 2008.

The hedge fund's stake is now worth less than US$200 million and Harbinger's boss, Philip Falcone, is keeping his options open.

In an email from his Los Angeles office, Geffen confirmed this week that he had approached Harbinger about buying its shares - in answer to an inquiry, he simply wrote, "Yes, it's true." Although he was knocked back, Geffen added that he remained a potential buyer: "The NYT is not for sale but if it were, yes, I would be interested."

A loss-making, old-technology newspaper would seem an odd vehicle for a colourful Californian showbusiness mogul.

Geffen, shrewdly, is casting himself as a potential saviour of a US national treasure rather than as a business buyer - sources close to the billionaire say he wants to turn the NYT into a non-profit institution, preserving it in perpetuity.

The Californian is not the only party sniffing around. The world's third-richest man, the Mexican telecoms tycoon Carlos Slim, invested US$250 million in the NYTC in January, getting warrants that could lift his 7 per cent stake to 17 per cent.

There have been persistent rumours that New York's Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, could add the paper to his business information empire, in spite of his protestations that he is "not a newspaper person".

Even Google has been cited as a possible buyer. A report last week suggested that a Times director, Scott Galloway, approached the internet search engine's co-founder, Larry Page, about a buyout - although Galloway denied to a Reuters reporter that any conversation had happened: "There has been absolutely zero contact between me and him [Page]."

The Times is hardly unique in facing financial challenges. Big US papers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News have disappeared from newsstands, while others, such as the Chicago Sun-Times and the Los Angeles Times, are under bankruptcy protection.

But as one of the few truly national US papers, with a weekday circulation of 1.04 million, the NYT's influence extends far beyond New York.

Red ink is splattered over its accounts. Craig Huber, an analyst at Barclays Capital in New York, estimates that advertising revenue will fall by 26 per cent this year and by 10 per cent next year, factoring in the Times' sister papers, which include the Boston Globe and 18 regional publications.

Huber reckons the share price, which was hovering at about US$6.30 this week, could fall to US$1 within a year.

"Newspapers cannot cost-cut themselves to prosperity and an online-only newspaper is not profitable, not even close," wrote Huber in a bleak research report.

"We do not have a solution on how to solve the difficulties newspapers face."

Others, however, see a brighter horizon for papers with a global brand. Ken Doctor, an analyst at Outsell, points out that a third of the 20 million monthly visitors to the Times website are from beyond the US, and suggests that the Times is one of 10 to 12 media companies with a truly international name.

"You could see the extension of the NYT brand on to every conceivable kind of publishing platform, globally," says Doctor, who says the future for newspapers is all about "screens" - whether it be the iPhone, the Kindle, digital paper or future interactive televisions.

"The world, I think, in 2015, will be a very different world. Those companies able to master the screens that are popular, and that produce content people want, are going to be the winners."

The Times is no slouch when it comes to digital offerings. It has a research lab testing electronic paper, touch-screen devices and flexible screens.

Possibilities being developed include magazine ads with microchips which, when touched on to a computer, can take users directly to an advertiser's website. But sceptics question whether a family-owned paper can ultimately generate the financial firepower needed to crack the new era.

A youthful 57-year-old with a clubable demeanour, the Times' publisher, Arthur Ochs-Sulzberger Jr, has been chairman since 1997. He once joked that he had achieved power in the same way as the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il - by succeeding his father.

Five of his relatives work at the company including his son, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, who recently joined the Times newsroom as a cub reporter, churning out stories about collapsing buildings, public transport and Grand Central Station's lightbulbs.

The family controls the NYTC through ownership of 89 per cent of the group's B shares, which have super-voting power to elect a majority of the board.

After the company's annual meeting last month, the clan met - and sources close to the dynasty say they remain resolutely behind the paper. Even if a few dissidents did sell, their shares would convert into lesser A shares, providing a near cast-iron defence of the family's control.

Addressing shareholders at the annual meeting, Sulzberger gave no ground. The Times' ability to weather past storms was due, he said, to the "steadfast support" of the Ochs-Sulzbergers. Expressing pride in the paper's mission of providing a robust exchange of ideas, he bluntly told investors, "We are here to stay."

Music, movies and ... news?

David Geffen describes himself as "a boy from Brooklyn", but he made his multibillion-dollar fortune by moving from east coast to west and becoming the king of Hollywood.

Born in 1943, he championed a new generation of musicians in the 1960s. He represented Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Janis Joplin, whom he had met while working at the William Morris talent agency.

He made his first US$1 million in 1969, selling the music publishing company he founded with Laura Nyro, and went on to sign other influential acts, including the Eagles, to Asylum Records, the label he founded in 1970 and then sold. He struck gold again with Geffen Records, signing Nirvana in the early 1990s.

By then he had also branched into film and theatre, producing Interview with the Vampire and Miss Saigon. In 1994, he formed the DreamWorks studio with Steven Spielberg and former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg; films including Saving Private Ryan and Antz made him one of the most powerful men in LA.

He divides his time between a New York City apartment and a Malibu beach home, but riding to the rescue of the New York Times would represent a dramatic homecoming for the boy who left Manhattan when he was barely out of his teens.